A Story About A Hick, by Tyler Smith

12 Feb

Written and Directed by: Robert Rossen
Starring: Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Mercedes McCambridge

“Power corrupts.”

A pretty simple statement, and one that I think pretty much everybody agrees on. In fact, this little bit of cynical wisdom is so widely accepted, that I think we have failed to recognize the inherent tragedy of it.

Think about it. A well-meaning person all of a sudden gains power and starts to become more consumed with their own welfare. Soon, they are almost unrecognizable. They are certainly a far cry from where they started.

There are many films that employ this theme. None more effectively, I think, than Robert Rossen’s 1949 film All the King’s Men.

Rossen, with the help of a great cast, manages to put an all-too-human face on the old adage. The story involves Willie Stark, a small town bumpkin who involves himself in local politics. He doesn’t particularly want to; he just feels that he has to as an antidote to all the corruption going on.

His opposition exploits his appeal to split the “hick vote,” so they can make sure their own guy gets in. When Willie gets wind of this, he loses it. He starts speaking his mind; all the frustration of a normal guy sick to death of the filthy world around him comes pouring out. This plain speaking gives Willie mass appeal. Though he still loses, he comes away a bit more wise in the ways of the world.

He uses this knowledge to get elected the next time around. With the best of intentions, he starts to make compromises to get noble things done. At first, he accomplishes a lot. Soon, though, the compromises are disproportionate to the achievements. The ends start to be swallowed up by the means.

And, before you know it, Willie is just like those guys he ran against all those years ago. Worse, he is completely aware of it.

It is a heartbreaking movie. A lot of credit is due to Broderick Crawford’s sensitive performance as Willie Stark. At first, his demeanor is charmingly- sometimes frustratingly- naive. But, we soon find that we, like everybody else, have underestimated Willie. He is just as shrewd as the next guy; perhaps a bit more so. That Crawford can play out his character’s arc organically is a testament to his abilities. As time has gone on, Crawford has been virtually forgotten, in spite of the fact that he won Best Actor for this film.

But, I think that his anonymity helps give the film power. If it were Gregory Peck or James Cagney (or Sean Penn, for that matter), we’d get the stronger sense of artificiality. But with Broderick Crawford in there, we feel like we’re watching a real guy- a guy we may have known in the past- go on an emotional journey that can only end in heartbreak.

As I said, the theme is not groundbreaking, but the execution hits it home in a way one cannot foresee. As much as I love Citizen Kane, one almost expects Charles Foster Kane, with his cynicism and ego, to turn into a reactionary. Contrarily, we would never expect this from Jefferson Smith; he’s too good a guy, right?

It is that instinct that the movie plays upon, thus creating an effective character piece that will stay with you long after it’s over.

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